Rights and traditions in Zim: Can traditional leaders regain trust?

traditional leaders

BEFORE discussing the world food crisis So true is the wisdom of the royal elders in Honde Valley as expressed at a community meeting that I attended back in 2009 as part of a conversation on nation building. We are all royals in our clan, they said to me, emphasising that I should not trivialise my royalty among the royals. Human dignity is the royalty that they were bestowing on me and everyone who visited their sacred land. Because everyone comes from somewhere.

The institution of traditional leadership is so profound that it is not possible to fully succeed in building a culture of human rights without traditional leaders as partners in that journey. In fact, traditional leaders according to the dictates of our culture, are supposed to be the guardians of the human rights culture. Indeed, many remain true to such a tradition, forbidding any violence in their communities. However, some have departed from this sacred duty.

On June 23 2022, we launched the 2021 State of Peace Report in Bulawayo and Harare. One of our delegates at the Bulawayo launch was a well-respected traditional leader who expressed great appreciation for the report. One of the findings of the 2021 State of Peace Report captured the national sentiment as regards the role of traditional leaders in advancing peace in Zimbabwe.

The report noted that in some communities, traditional leaders are seen advancing a partisan political agenda, a reality which now undermines the confidence of the people in the institution of traditional leadership. The report goes further to recommend dialogue on the role of traditional leaders.

In response to this finding, traditional leaders have called on civil society to engage more on the subject and support traditional leaders in the noble quest to restore the people’s confidence in the institution. Speaking at the launch of the report, one of the leaders recommended civic education for traditional leaders.

The 2021 State of Peace Report was released at the time when Zimbabwe is preparing for the 2023 harmonised elections and there are fears of violence. ZimRights is inundated with reports of how some traditional leaders have already started advancing a partisan political agenda. Masvingo Province leads the pack of traditional leaders pursuing a partisan political agenda and violating human rights in the process. One of the traditional leaders in Masvingo has gone on record promising one political party five million votes. Another leader has warned some citizens that they will lose their land if they do not support a certain political party. These sad developments vindicate the findings of the 2021 State of Peace Report. We later unpack why Masvingo is leading in this pandemic but we hope to place this information within the framework of a positive dialogue on rights and traditions and not name calling.

With over 30 years of experience in working with communities, ZimRights knows that the regrettable conduct of a few traditional leaders does not reflect the nature of the entire institution. There are a lot of good traditional leaders who have continually, under difficult times, defended human rights.

ZimRights has worked with such leaders and continues to support them in their important role. This is why as a follow up to our ground-breaking 2021 State of Peace Report, we are following up with the policy brief “Rights and Traditions: Traditional Leadership, Politics and Human Rights in Zimbabwe”. This policy brief comes at the request of well-respected traditional leaders to initiate a dialogue process that can help the nation transform the institution of traditional leadership to embrace and protect our cultural values that protect human dignity.

We acknowledge that traditional leaders are important in the struggle for human rights. Our vision under the Shifting Power to the People Strategy (SP2P) is to see communities leading in creating and sustaining a culture of human rights. In this vision, we see the human rights struggle as a community’s internal transformation journey. Without local leadership, the resultant culture, no matter how good, can never be sustainable.

The World Bank estimates that about 67% of the Zimbabwean population lives in the rural areas. These are the majority of our population that live under the leadership and influence of traditional leaders. They practice the customs and practices of these communities. It is in these rural communities that we find many of our minority and marginalised communities and they are usually hard to reach.

We, therefore, cannot wage a struggle for human rights while ignoring 67% of our people. Neither can we do it successfully without partnering with their leaders who are also our leaders. This partnership cannot possibly work if the premise is that “traditional leaders are the bad guys” and “we are the good guys” trying to rescue society from the menace of traditional leaders.

We must have a deep conversation based on mutual respect on how we as human rights defenders can support the institution of traditional leadership, which we know is also full of respected human rights defenders, to advance the traditional values of human dignity in the face of an invasive political culture that threatens death for non-compliance. We must understand that this is the work of many institutions and not merely traditional leaders.

The Constitution of Zimbabwe underscores that traditional leaders should be governed by the principle of political neutrality, our next report affirms. The requirement that traditional leaders should be apolitical relates to the very nature of their office and extends to how traditional leaders conduct their work.  Chiefs, headmen and village heads are all non-elected officials appointed in line with the prevailing culture, customs, traditions and practices of their communities. Therefore, traditional leaders are not politicians. But there is a whole leadership ecosystem that is not partaking in this conversation.

This is why we are speaking out in this upcoming report, addressing many actors that have a role to play in this issue. In this report, we have discovered that the worst culprits in this matter are political leaders, so called honourable members of Parliament who use these communities for their political agendas. Addressing the political threats that face the institution of traditional leadership is a collective obligation that calls for real work.

We have hope that this is a dialogue that will bear fruit. But we are not deluded. We know it will take more than just a report. It is a cultural transformation. Transforming cultures may take generations. In the report, we share some ideas on how our generation can take the next step in supporting the institution of traditional leadership to advance the values of human dignity and protection of a dignified life for all citizens.

Traditional leaders are supposed to be guardians of our culture. What culture could be more valuable to the human community more than the human rights culture? This is why the elders of Honde Valley looked at me in 2009, a stranger in their community, and said “You too, are a bearer of royalty, even among us.” They did not ask for my political affiliation. That is the way it must be for everyone, everywhere in Zimbabwe.


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